Anti-Aging : Aging Well Depends on You

Harry Jackson Jr.

Kyna Iman, 45, of St. Louis, works out, eats right and comes from a family whose members have a history of living past 80.

She eats a healthy diet and exercises three days a week at the Fitness Factory in downtown St. Louis.

"I have an aunt in her 80s with diabetes," Iman said. "And she's healthier than I am and gets around more than me. That's how I want to be."

Scientists say what's most important about Iman's outlook is that she made a choice to live healthy years. Your longevity is largely in your hands.

WHAT IS AGING?

Aging is how fast your cells wear out; that starts when they divide.

"Each time they divide, the two new cells are (lower quality) than the first cells," said Dr. David R. Thomas, professor of medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine. But no one knows why. Science generally is stumped by "why do we age and what kills us," Thomas said.

Dr. Michael Roizen, co-author of the "YOU..." series of personal health books, says that cells also wear out when they're mistreated -- smoking, drinking too much alcohol, eating too much fatty food, being sedentary.

WHO'S RIGHT?

Thomas explained that researchers into aging generally fall into two major camps.

Genetics -- They believe genes determine the durability of your cells, "... that some things just work for so long and then fall apart," Thomas said. This group advocates being healthy through good diets, exercise and other healthy practices in the time you have.

Damage -- They believe environment damages cells because there's no real reason to age. Neutralize damage and increase longevity, they say -- some extremists believe, indefinitely. This group advocates repair mechanisms, such as megadoses of anti-oxidants, detoxification and other measures to reverse cell damage.

The answer is most likely in the middle, Thomas said. "Even the Bible says you have so many years."

LIFE EXPECTANCY OR SPAN

As you plan for your future, know the difference between life expectancy and life span, Thomas said.

"Every species has a life span," Thomas said. An insect may live a day, a tree 500 years.

The human life span remains at 95 to 120 years, he says.

"Life expectancy has increased," Thomas said. "Life span has not."

The Social Security Administration's Actuarial Publication's Period Life Table for 2005 says the life expectancy of a girl born today is 79.5 years. In the early 20th century that was 40 to 50 years, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"That was when grandpa was in his late 50s," Thomas said. "Sixty was old."

Dr. Peter Rabinovitch, head of the Basic Biology of Aging program and the Rabinovitch Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle says human evolution has had nothing to do with increased life expectancy over the last century.

"We reduced the disease load," Rabinovitch said. Society has cleaned drinking water, improved sewage disposal, enacted food safety laws and provided vaccinations, antibiotics and other improvements in medicine, he says.

The experts agreed that even if you're born with a genetic tendency for a life-shortening disease, such as hypertension, medicine can ease or reverse the effects.

WHAT YOU CONTROL

Most of all, your longevity is largely in your hands, the doctors said.

"Science knows, that 191 things can slow aging in humans, and 149 of those you can change," says Roizen, who is also founder of RealAge.com, a website that gives advice on how to slow aging.

Nancy Bennett, senior life fellow with the American Academy of Actuaries based in Washington, says when life insurance companies that "calculate how long it will be before they pay a claim," prefer people in good physical condition. On the flip side, smokers pay higher premiums because they increase their risk of early death, she said.

FIGHT BACK

Dr. Richard A. Bligh, medical director of the St. Louis Center for Preventive and Longevity Medicine in Town and County, says his patients generally ask for better years, not more years. "They want to feel better, get back their energy, their libido," he said.

Often, "People come in and have terrible diets, terrible lifestyles," he said. They want quick fixes, he said.

"You have to do some lifestyle modifications," he said.

Still, medical science can reverse many of the effects of aging, he said. That involves hormone therapy, fitness counseling and improving your diet as well as ending bad habits such as smoking, he said. Cosmetic treatments to fix wrinkles are also an option, he said.

"I always tell my patients it's all about living well, not living long. I don't want to live to be 100 if I'm going to spend my last 10 years in a nursing home."

Date: Aug 13, 2009

To see more of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.stltoday.com.

Copyright © 2009, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Search Site